Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Desplechin's births and deaths

Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale recently opened in the United States after a celebrated premiere at Cannes. To my mind, it falls just short of the exhilaration I felt after experiencing Descplechin's deft weaving of interlocking narratives in Kings and Queen (2005). A Christmas Tale, by contrast, is often more exhausting than exhilarating, and at times more tiring (given how much story and cinematic texture he has packed into the film) than moving. But it has left me with just as much to chew on, and will no doubt justify repeat viewings.

A Christmas Tale winds its way around different narrative trajectories all centered around the bourgeois Vuillard family. The family's matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is dying of cancer, and much of the story is about her search for a bone marrow match within her family. The most promising match turns out to be Henri (the always wonderful Mathieu Almaric), her troubled son who has been estranged from the family's daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) for some time. Patriarch Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillion) organizes a family get-together that will finally bring all of the siblings together again for the first time in years. The family remains haunted by the death of a younger sibling, Joseph, who is seen only in photographs, his life arrested in a still image within a film so rich with movement and variety.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, A Christmas Tale would easily become another piece of Hollywood holiday detritus, in which everything is resolved at the end as familial disturbances are ironed out. The possibility of continued disturbance remains vitally alive at the end of Desplechin's film, however, although it does achieve some measure of resolution. In large part, I would say the film is about the founding myths we use to make sense of our past experience (which in the story involves, of course, the past experience of the family itself). A passage from Irving Signer's recent book Cinematic Mythmaking: Philosophy and Film gets at what I mean:

As we all know, many examples of superb mythmaking occur in operas between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Film goes further: it transfers the mythological representation out of the theater and into the realm of nature and society, where it still takes place aesthetically but can now be observed as if it duplicated what we might encounter in our commonplace immersion in the everyday world of sight and sound. (Singer, Cinematic Mythmaking, 7)

Singer's book is about those stories we immediately recognize as myths: Pygmalion, Orpheus. A Christmas Tale is more about the myths we create to endure our more prosaic, everyday experience, and Desplechin shows how such mythmaking emerges "in the everyday world of sight and sound" of the Vuillards (without ever allowing their bourgeois haunt to become "naturalized" through any kind of classical filmmaking strategy). Death hangs over all of the characters; it is a part of the family's history, and in this way young Joseph becomes a kind of founding myth, explaining the family's tribulations and disappointments. Family history haunts characters in other ways, too: Elizabeth's son Paul (Emile Berling) has recently been institutionalized for a mental disturbance, and he sees parallels with both Henri and the other Vuillard brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), who suffered a mental breakdown at Paul's age. But as Elizabeth affirms in the film's final scene, the film is ultimately about the search for new familial myths through which to explain experience, once the old ones become oppressive and stifling. Desplechin makes this clear enough through some of the films he cites (films that, at various moments in film history, breathed new poetic life into old stories): the poster for The New World appears late in the film, prior to the final scene; and The Ten Commandments, viewed on the family's television during Christmas Eve, becomes less about the link between Judaism and Christianity and more about the family finding its own sense of rebirth and rejuvenation, and discovering that their family could be otherwise.

Desplechin's play with the fragments of cinema's past suggests a larger meaning at work. I don't want to burden such a delicate film as A Christmas Tale with heavy allegorical significance (although J. Hoberman is right when he calls the director a "maximalist": despite Desplechin's craft-like attention to detail, this is a film that is dense enough to call for sweeping interpretations, too, some kind of frame which might make sense of its richness). But it is, alas, on some level about the birth, death, and rebirth of cinema. Deneuve herself is, of course, a glowing sign of the cinematic history Desplechin both honors and inflects here, and like other Desplechin characters she, in one scene, self-reflexively acknowledges the presence of the audience. In one sequence she literally glows: as a doctor samples her bone marrow, Desplechin bathes Deneuve in white light, as if regarding her, and the related New Wave history the film so lovingly builds upon, as very nearly sacred. In a corresponding moment, in the film's penultimate sequence, Almaric's Henri gives the bone marrow which might save Junon's life, and he is lit in a similar glow. Is Desplechin suggesting that Almaric's star will eventually be passed from Deneuve's, thus carrying on the history of cinema that so many have presumed dead?

Obviously, this question, at least for Desplechin, is answered from the start: no director and no film this vitally alive could even entertain the question of cinema being "dead." Such are the pleasures of this delicate, finely observed film that nonetheless allows its characters to talk to the audience and refer to themselves metacinematically as "shadows." It is to Desplechin's enormous credit that this meditation on film and life never feels forced or pretentious, but utterly organic. Kings and Queen may ultimately be the more enduring film, the one I turn to to explain to neophytes what Desplechin's all about, but this is still one of the best films of the year.

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